Saturday, March 4, 2017

History, Languages, and All Manner of Other Things: A Few Thoughts About Paul Goldberg’s The Yid

Paul Goldberg’s novel The Yid offers up an unusual angle on Stalin’s Russia: Goldberg begins the book on February 24, 1953, sending a Black Maria with attendant staff to arrest one Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, “an actor from the defunct State Jewish Theater.” Everything goes topsy-turvy in Levinson’s apartment—and, really, in the rest of the novel, just as things have gone topsy-turvy in the USSR over the last several decades—thanks to Levinson’s skill with sharp objects. And so. What does a non-state actor (sorry for the pun!) do with dead bodies killed unofficially? And how might a non-state actor (meaning someone like Levinson) and his buddies try to combat Stalin? This second question is a new variation on the age-old burning question of “What is to be done?”

The fun of The Yid, which looks at the horrors of fascism, racism, and the Soviet past, isn’t just its element of something akin to an almost gleeful alternative history, it’s in its telling. Even more so for a reader like me who so loves to have a writer guide her through a book. The Yid may be Goldberg’s debut novel—he said in an appearance at Print Bookstore in Portland a couple weeks ago that he’s written other, unpublished, fiction—but he makes masterful use of language and literary devices as he establishes an absurd world that blends historical truth (and even historical characters, something I think very, very few writers do successfully) with a fictional world that’s extraordinarily playful and theatrical, drawing, among other things on Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Three early examples. Goldberg begins with a trilingual epigraph from Shmuel Halkin’s Bar-Kokhba (Moscow State Jewish Theater, 1938), very shortly thereafter calls the first part of his book “Act I,” and defines certain terms in his second paragraph:
A Black Maria is a distinctive piece of urban transport, chernyy voron, a vehicle that collects its passengers for reasons not necessarily political. The Russian people gave this ominous carriage a diminutive name: voronok, a little raven, a fledgling.
By page nine, he’s already blending Yiddish, Russian, and English in ways that made me happy as both a reader and a translator. Just scroll down to “Dos bist du?” in this excerpt on the Jewish Book Council site for a sample. The words are playing, the characters are playing, and Goldberg is again showing his readers how to read his book. This time, there’s a crude rhyme that involves two languages; Goldberg even offers an explicit explanation. (Side note: I think Goldberg makes wonderful use of Russian mat, obscenities, in The Yid.) There’s an obvious obviousness and staginess throughout the book that sometimes extends to (oh, here’s a random find, flipping the pages) a bit of a soliloquy from Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, presented in both transliterated Russian and Anthony Wood’s English translation. Late in the book there’s also a mention of how historian Edvard Radzinsky covers “the events at Stalin’s dacha in the early morning of March 1, 1953.” All of that, plus, of course, Goldberg’s abundant humor, remind the reader not to take this world too literally… all while taking its tragicomedy, absurdity, and historical mayhem and reality very seriously. I’ve been a sucker for that paradox for years.

I enjoyed The Yid very much as a reader but I think I enjoyed it even more as a translator because I love observing how writers handle dialogue with multiple languages. I particularly appreciated Goldberg’s combination of translations, transliterations, and original language because, yes, dear readers, he shows that these things can work together. There was even a practical element for me, in noting the words Goldberg uses to refer to unfortunate features of the Stalin era, things that are in Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, which I’m translating: cattle cars, guards, transit prisons, deportees… There are, of course, plenty of books containing those words, but something about Goldberg’s lively combination of English, Russian, and Yiddish really won me over, even more so because he also blends genres, temporal settings (I didn’t even get to that!), cultures (or that!), and so much damn sad history into around 300 pages. I’m looking forward to his next novel.

For more:

Disclaimers: I received a copy of The Yid from the publisher, Picador; thank you to James Meader for sending a copy of the book, which he also edited, as Goldberg’s acknowledgements note. With all its languages and references, I’m sure The Yid presented a slew of editing challenges. Kudos to Meader and the rest of the editorial team for their work.

Up Next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, which I loved for being a book about nearly everything that matters in this world, then Valery Zalotukha’s The Last Communist, which I’m enjoying very much because (about half-way in, anyway) it’s succeeding at the opposite feat and feels almost like chamber theater about post-Soviet Russia, focusing on a wealthy family in a small city… I’m not sure about conquering Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Adoration of the Magi: though I enjoyed some individual passages, the novel lacks, hmm, narrative drive and 100 pages felt like several hundred more. That means that reading six more hundreds of pages feels nigh on impossible right now. Though far, far stranger things have happened.


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